Southeast Asian nations Monday avoided direct criticism of Beijing over its claims to the South China Sea, in a diluted statement produced after days of disagreement that gives the superpower a diplomatic victory.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) sidestepped any mention of a ruling by a UN-backed tribunal that rejected China’s claims and infuriated Beijing.
Instead, ASEAN repeated that it was “seriously concerned” by “land reclamations and escalation of activities” and called for “self-restraint” in the strategic waterway.
The contested sea, through which some $5 trillion in shipping passes annually, has been a source of increasing tension between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours along with the United States.
Regional diplomats are gathered in the Laos capital Vientiane for an ASEAN summit that has been dogged by the flashpoint issue of territorial claims.
It is the first time key players — including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi — have met en masse since a UN-backed tribunal a fortnight ago rejected Beijing’s claims.
ASEAN’s leading envoys have spent days wrangling over how to respond to the ruling amid splits, acrimony and fears the bloc is faltering in its response to the major security challenge of the day.
Staunch Beijing ally Cambodia has been accused of scuppering efforts by the bloc to unite in a call for China to abide by the tribunal’s verdict.
Four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea.
Most members want to keep pressure on China over its campaign of island-building yet they are wary of stoking such a vital trading partner.
But ASEAN operates on a tradition of consensus diplomacy, meaning a single nation can have an effective veto if it disagrees.
– Beijing wins the day –
A statement was finally released on Monday after hours of last-minute talks — but it tacked away from criticism of Beijing.
“We had to come out with a statement,” one diplomat involved in talks told AFP. “We don’t want the world to say that ASEAN is in disarray.”
Another diplomat, when asked if Monday’s statement had been watered down, said: “It’s a compromise statement. And in a compromise someone has to give way.”
The decision will be a boon to China, which has angrily rejected the international tribunal case brought by the Philippines.
Earlier China’s heaped praise on Cambodia — to whom it ladles out aid and loans — for holding out against fellow members.
At a press conference after the statement was issued, Wang said regional leaders had “made it very clear that ASEAN does not take sides on the arbitration case or the so called ruling”.
He also accused countries outside the region of “keeping the temperature high” over the sea, a clear rebuke to the United States.
Kerry arrived in Laos on Monday and is expected to hold talks with Wang later in the day.
The US says it takes no position on the territorial disputes but argues for free sea and air passage through what it considers international waters.
It has called on Beijing to accept the tribunal ruling.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula are also likely high on the agenda for both China and the US.
Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a series of ballistic missile tests including one last Tuesday.
In response Seoul announced plans to host a US missile defence system on its territory, sparking fury in Pyongyang and concern in Beijing.
North Korea’s newly minted Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho is attending the Laos gathering, a rare moment at which senior officials from Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang will be in the same room.
Earlier in the day he met Wang for talks at the sidelines of the meeting.
However, Washington has played down the likelihood of talks between the two countries during the summit.